Aliens in the dark

The radio finally starts to quiet down about 50 miles west of Nashville. For the last hour it’s been a constant squawk of airplanes looking for smoother altitudes and controllers telling them there aren’t any. A massive line of weather, stretching from the Florida Panhandle up to the Canadian border has been dumping rain and high winds on the surface and causing bumpy rides up high. Climbing out of Charlotte we hit the clouds at 1000 feet and since then have been riding the winds, alternating between light and moderate turbulence. On my orders both flight attendants stayed strapped in their seats in the back. Finally, just as we crossed the Nashville VOR and started our turn to the southwest, we popped out the backside of the weather and into clear, smooth air.

Despite the lack of clouds, we are still facing an almost 170 mile per hour headwind, driven by a southern jetstream. The mileage to go number on the display in front of me barely moves at all as we claw our way westward. What ground lighting that can be seen between the ragged gaps in the lower layer of clouds seems to stay fixed in place, only moving when I force myself to look away for a while and then turn my head back to check again. Overhead in the clear, dark skies, thousands of stars are visible. I quickly pick out the few constellations I am familiar with and then, pressing my face against the warm glass of the side window, stare into the void and ponder the infinite.

As the FO happily munches on a late dinner across the cockpit from me, I wonder how many other crews in other planes over the years have looked out at a view like this. High overhead a shooting star streaks across the sky, and before I can even utter a word, disappears back into the darkness. As I continue to scan for more stars the radio sputters to life as the Memphis Center controller advises us of opposite direction traffic; a United 737, 1000 feet below us. I swivel forward in my seat as the FO puts down his sandwich and sits up. We both quickly find the rapidly approach plane, visible as only red and green position lights and a single red strobe on the top. As it closes in I reach up and quickly flip on and off our landing light, a sort of wave of hello in the darkness. Seconds later their landing lights briefly illuminate and then go dark as they disappear under our nose. The FO finds it all hilariously funny and giggles for several minutes.

I press my face back to the side glass and go back to staring upwards. High overhead a dark shape passes by, momentarily blotting out stars as it moves. I see no lights on it and as it is so far away and a dark shape against a dark sky I have no idea what it is; A UFO in the truest sense of the words. As it disappears out of view I shrug it off. I’ve seen lots of strange looking things up here and yet feel very strongly that every single one of them is explainable as a normal aircraft, just viewed from an abnormal prospective. Not that I don’t think there could be aliens out there, just that I’ve never seen anything along those lines. I slide back around in my seat and see that the FO is done with dinner and has the voice boom back down on his headset. Figuring this is as a good time as any to tell ghost stories I ask him if he’s heard about America West Flight 564. He says no.

In the spring of 1995, AWA 564, a Boeing 757 flying from Tampa to Phoenix, was somewhere over west Texas at 39,000 feet when they encountered what the crew called a band of strobing lights. They were flying near a large line of weather and the lights were between them and the storm. Eventually, when the object with the lights was backlit by the lightning in the clouds, they were able to make out a large “cigar like” object that was upwards of 500 feet long. The queried Air Traffic Control about this object and were told there was nothing there on radar. ATC checked with the local area military controller as well as NORAD who also had nothing on their scopes. No other airplanes along the route saw anything.

There are plenty of stories out there like this. Crews or single pilots see something in dark of the night or in the light of the sun or in the shadows of the terrain. Nothing can explain it and nobody else sees it. Does it mean it never existed and that their eyes were just playing tricks on them? Maybe. Maybe not. As pilots we tend to try to justify whatever we see as normal as reporting the abnormal may bring our sanity into question. A pilot who has mental issues can’t be a pilot, so in the name of self preservation I’d guess these events are under reported. I lean towards the conclusion that 99.9999% of the time there is a perfectly logical explanation for everything anybody has seen in flight. The other .0001% I leave for people far brighter than myself to figure out.

I’m brought back from my story by the destination weather coming up on screen. Little Rock was forecasted to be clear when we got there but fog has formed on the banks of the Arkansas River and the field is reporting 1 mile visibility and low overcast skies. I grumble about the useless weather forecast we got when we left Charlotte but am quickly comforted by the fact that we have lots of extra gas tonight; More than enough to try a few approaches and then slink back to Memphis where I know the weather is nice because I can see the city out the window 10 miles ahead of us. As ATC clears us to a lower altitude I turn my focus from the other worldly to the more pressing issue of finding the right approach plate and setting us up to land.

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